Madison in the Sixties – March, 1962, when race and racism dominated a city council campaign and campus cinematography.
As the month opens, south side alder and painter’s union boss Harold E. “Babe” Rohr campaigns for a fourth term by attacking NAACP as “a malicious force,” and calling his challenger Jan Marfyak its “hand-picked candidate.” At a forum at Franklin School, Rohr says Blacks hurt themselves backing bills like the NAACP’s proposed human rights ordinance, and denies being prejudiced. “Some of my best friends are Negroes,” he declares.
Marfyak, an administrative assistant with the department of motor vehicles, notes he is not a member of the association, disagrees with some of its tactics, and has never even met NAACP president Taliaferro.57
Then someone starts sending anonymous postcards to 14th ward voters claiming Marfyak lives in a trailer, doesn’t pay taxes, and is himself a Negro. Although none of this is true, Rohr refuses to disavow the lies; “I had nothing to do with this,” he insists. At a joint appearance in late March, someone asks Rohr point- blank: “Do you think that Mr. Marfyak is a Negro?” When Rohr won’t answer, Marfyak shoots to his feet. “In the sense of fair play, Mr. Rohr, will you tell me to my face that I am not a Negro?” he demands. He won’t. “I’m not going to state whether you are or are not a Negro,” Rohr replies.60
Both papers endorse Marfyak with blistering editorials. “Rohr seeks to whip up race hate and fear to divert attention from the real issues,” the liberal Capital Times declares. The moderate State Journal denounces Rohr’s “racist line” and his “plans to fan the flames of prejudice rather than work for solutions.”
The election is April third.
In mid-March, an instructor with the UW–Extension’s Bureau of Audio- Visual Instruction, sparks a statewide controversy by publicly resigning when the university suppresses his undercover film documenting housing discrimination in Madison.
BAVI Instructor Stuart Hanisch used long-distance lenses and hidden microphones to film 13 separate incidents of landlords rejecting black apartment seekers outright or lying to them about unit availability. He called the film, “To Find a Home.” It was largely funded by $3,000 in donations raised by state NAACP president Lloyd Barbee, acting as chair of the local group Citizens Committee on Anti- Discrimination in Housing.
Hanisch and Barbee had explained the candid filming techniques to Extension officials in 1960 and had gotten their approval and the final $1,000 they needed. But when Hanisch screens a rough cut in January 1962, Extension officials declare the university could not “in good conscience” release the footage because it violates the privacy of the discriminating landlords. Hanisch and Barbee propose blocking their faces and street addresses, but the administrators insist Hanisch re- create the film using actors.
Hanisch writes an angry resignation letter instead and gives it to the Capital Times for Monday afternoon’s front page, March 19. Tuesday morning, the state NAACP chapter starts picketing Extension offices, first on the Madison campus, then around the state, their placards reading “UW Protects Bigots” and “Sifting, Winnowing and Film Burning.”
UW president Conrad Elvehjem, who in 1931 publicly supported a restrictive covenant barring Blacks from living in his Nakoma neighborhood, says he has a “moral and ethical problem” with the candid camerawork, which he says “has overtones of the police state and violates a basic freedom our constitution guarantees.”
On Wednesday, university vice president Fred Harvey Harrington meets with Hanisch, Barbee, and other NAACP officials at the YWCA., trying to clear the air. Harrington agrees that they were open with Extension officials about using candid footage but that the information didn’t get to central administration. “We made a mistake at the university” to have allowed the hidden microphones and cameras, he says. “Having made it, we do not feel we should carry it forward.”
On Sunday, US Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. , chair of the House Labor and Education Committee, demands a copy of the film, threatening a subpoena if it is not provided. Elvehjem refuses, sending the Harlem Democrat a certified typewritten transcript of the film, including of footage not included in the film’s rough cut.
The WSA Student Senate sides with suppression and endorses the administration’s action a few days later, stating that the fight against racial discrimination “is not worth effronting the same spirit of fair play that is offended by discrimination.”
The controversy splits traditional allies. The Wisconsin Civil Liberties Union board of directors— which includes attorney James E. Doyle, UW law professors William Gorham Rice and Abner Brodie, the Reverends Max Gaebler and Alfred Wilson Swan, and Capital Times editor Miles McMillin— votes unanimously to condemn hidden cameras and microphones as “an unwarranted invasion of privacy” and supports the administration; McMillin backs his board vote with an editorial on March 23, calling on the NAACP to “learn that the ends do not justify the means.” The liberal group Americans for Democratic Action agrees with the NAACP and calls for the film’s release.
The administration doesn’t budge, releasing only the eighty- page transcript of the film and directing Hanisch’s colleague Jackson Tiffany to re- create the undercover footage with actors. The regents take no formal action, but individual members express their approval of how Elvehjem and Harrington handled the controversy. The original film is locked away.
The month ends with the two most important black leaders in America coming to the Memorial Union, only a few days apart. But their schedule is closer than their messages.
On Friday, March 30, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers the second annual Jonas Rosenfield lecture before a very supportive capacity crowd of 1300 at the Union Theater on “The Future of Integration.” “Segregation is on its death- bed,” the Baptist preacher declares, “and the only problem is how expensive the nation will make its funeral.”74
Three nights later, Malcolm X takes a different tack when he addresses more than 500 in the Great Hall on “Black Nationalism in America.” “We reject integration – period,” the Nation of Islam Minister declares.
And that’s this week’s MITS. For your award-winning, listener supported WORT News Team, I’m Stu Levitan .